Photo Of The Day

W. Reginald Bray being delivered by registered post to his home on Devonshire Road. His patient father Edmund Bray is standing in the doorway accepting the receipt from the postman.

W. Reginald Bray being delivered by registered post to his home on Devonshire Road. His patient father Edmund Bray is standing in the doorway accepting the receipt from the postman.

The Englishman Who Posted Himself

and Other Curious Objects

Reginald Bray, was a legendary prankster who, more than one hundred years ago, tested the limits of the British postal system. I’m not sure whether today you could get away with mailing a stamp-covered skull.

Bray was an avid collector who amassed stamps, postmarks, train tickets, and girlfriends, and who, after reading the entire British Post Office Guide, impishly determined to take the rules as challenges. He tried posting an unimaginable array of things, to see whether the post office would deliver them. Apparently, at the time, the smallest item that could be posted was a bee, and the largest an elephant.

Bray seems to have tried most things in between. At one point or another, he mailed a bowler hat, a rabbit skull (the address spelled out on the nasal bone, and the stamps pasted to the back), a purse, a slipper, a clothes brush, seaweed, shirt collars, a penny, a turnip (address and message carved into the durable tuber), an Irish Terrier, and a pipe, among other curios.

Perhaps most remarkably, he posted himself, becoming the first man to send a human through the mail in 1900, and then, through registered mail, in 1903.

And Bray did not stop there. He sent postcards crocheted by his mother. He made out address fields in cryptic verse, or to the inhabitants of empty caves, or describing only the latitude and longitude of the destination, or with a picture of the location to which the article was meant to be delivered, the postcard made out to “The Resident Nearest This Rock,” for example.

He threw messages into bottles and solicited the world’s largest collection of autographs, including ones from Gary Cooper and Laurence Olivier, Charlie Chaplain and Maurice Chevalier. The image that emerges is of a blithe English rogue, testing the system, stretching its limits, an experimenter, playing the most relentless, and amusing, of pranks.

A relevant note: during this time period, the recipient paid the costs for their mail, thus reducing the costs of Bray’s strange hobby and probably annoying the postal workers when Bray’s strange addresses could not reach their destinations.

Who knows what inspired Bray to start his mass pranking of the postal service, but what we do know is that he was the master of this peculiar hobby.

He was a most unlikely prankster, an Edwardian husband and father whose neatly clipped moustache and smart suit gave his neighbours no reason to believe he was anything but a respectable accountant.

In his everyday life, he observed the many rules and regulations drawn up by bureaucrats of the time, keep off the grass in public parks, refrain from spitting in the street and avoid putting your feet on train seats. In short, he seemed a model citizen, but as in so many of us, within W. Reginald Bray there lurked an impish spirit that longed to sock a snook at officialdom.

And a clue as to his target was the red post-box outside his home in Forest Hill, a leafy suburb of South London. Its positioning could not have been more fortuitous for a man whose hobby was to test the postal system to its limit.

Bray had no qualms about how others might view his unusual pastime. This relentless joker dispatched more than 32,000 curios over the decades. He was born in 1879 in Forest Hill to solicitor’s clerk Edmund Bray and his wife Mary. But perhaps the real beginning of this story came nearly 40 years earlier with the introduction of Britain’s revolutionary system of penny postage.

Before then, postal charges were determined by the item’s weight and the distance travelled, with the recipient paying the costs, something that would not go down well in this age of junk mail.

After years of campaigning by teacher, inventor and social reformer Rowland Hill, who wanted to make the system affordable for all, it was decided letters weighing up to half an ounce could be delivered anywhere in the UK for one penny, with the cost pre-paid by the sender.

Posting letters became fashionable and, following the introduction of the famous Penny Black stamp, there was a craze for highly decorated and elaborate envelopes to impress business colleagues, friends and loved ones. This was at its height when Bray began collecting stamps as a schoolboy and may have made him curious as to what could be carried through the post. He grew up into a handsome and sporty young man with a fondness for cycling, and practical jokes.

Bray loved the company of pretty women, marrying his wife Mabel after courting her and her two sisters at the same time. He was clearly an obsessive. Few would have been much interested in the intricate workings of Britain’s postal system, yet in 1898 Bray bought a copy of the quarterly Post Office Guide, a weighty tome that outlined in detail the regulations governing its operation. He viewed these rules as challenges, opportunities to see how far the Post Office would go in complying with its own red tape. One decree aimed at Post Office staff stated that ‘letters must be delivered, as addressed’.

Bray enjoyed setting puzzles for the beleaguered sorters, including one address written backwards. This was duly delivered, as was another with the key words of the address contained within a few lines of verse. Others proved more of a challenge. One letter was addressed to ‘The Resident, London’, while two lines scribbled on a picture postcard of the Old Man of Hoy in the Orkney Islands requested that it should be delivered ‘To a resident nearest to this rock’. Not surprisingly, both were sent back to the return address, which Bray always took care to include.

So, too, was a card sent to ‘Santa Claus Esq’ and another marked for delivery to ‘The proprietor of the most remarkable hotel in the world on the road between Santa Cruz and Santa Jose, California’. Bray hoped for some kind of reply from the Post Office, but they usually arrived back in Forest Hill humourlessly stamped ‘insufficiently addressed’ or ‘contrary to regulations’. There was also an accompanying demand for the small fee levied on undeliverable items, which gave one postman, at least, a chance to show his appreciation for Bray’s love of absurdity.

A postcard addressed to ‘The Resident, Bournemouth’ came back with this rhyme scrawled on it:

‘Pursuing this game

We hope there are not many

However, for your hobby

You will have to pay a penny.’

Perhaps this was the same postman whose job it was to empty the post box outside Bray’s house each day. He must have been intrigued and slightly apprehensive about what he would find as Bray pushed the boundaries of what the Post Office could and would deliver.

The items were generally addressed to Bray himself or to his friends. Among the most gruesome was a rabbit’s skull, with the address written along the nasal bone and the stamps placed on the back. This was successfully delivered, as was a turnip with its destination carved into one side. Over the years, he posted, unwrapped, an onion, pipe, bicycle pump, clothes brush, shirt, drawing slate and clump of dried seaweed.

The fact these had been delivered only encouraged Bray to become ever more daring. He was particularly fascinated by the rules on live creatures, discovering that the smallest that could be posted was a bee and the largest an elephant.

He would have liked to test both these extremes, but practical considerations led him to settle for something in between: the posting of his faithful Irish terrier, Bob.

On page 37 of the Post Office Guide, in a paragraph entitled ‘Exceptional Express Services’, he read that ‘a dog furnished with a proper collar and chain may be, at the discretion of the postmaster, taken to its address on payment of a mileage charge’.

And so on February 10, 1900, he and Bob turned up at Forest Hill Post Office to test out this rule.

No record exists of the staff’s reaction, but an accompanying docket requesting that they ‘herewith please receive an Irish terrier as a letter for express delivery’ shows Bob was dispatched from the Post Office at 6.54pm and signed for at the family home just six minutes later.

Following this success, Bray was keen to try out another regulation explaining that ‘a person may be conducted by express messenger to any address on payment of the mileage charge’.

He later explained in a newspaper article that he had found this particularly useful when ‘one very foggy night I could not find a friend’s house, so instead of wandering about for hours I posted myself and was delivered in a few minutes’.

This was written tongue-in-cheek, but the fact remains that Bray did succeed in posting himself on at least one occasion.

An official form dated November 14, 1903, and signed by the long- suffering postmaster at Forest Hill, acknowledges ‘Delivery of an Inland Registered Person Cyclist’ to Bray’s home address.

The photograph above shows Bray waiting patiently behind a messenger boy, who is standing on his doorstep and asking Bray’s long-suffering father Edmund to sign a receipt for his son. The fee charged for this service was 3d a mile.

Since Bray lived only a few hundred yards from the Post Office, this meant he got home for less than the 4d cost of a taxi — except that there was an additional charge of 1d per 1lb in weight, up to a maximum of a shilling. He had to provide his own pedal power, the messenger boy merely showing him the way.

This is certainly not a facility provided by the Royal Mail today. It still permits the carriage of live bees — as well as other insects such as crickets, silkworms and maggots — but dogs and other living creatures, humans included, are banned.

How frustrating this would have been for Bray, whose fascination with all things postal included a passion for writing to famous people, asking for their autographs.

His neatly kept register of his autograph requests also documents whether or not he received a reply. While Charlie Chaplin, cricketer W. G. Grace and Laurence Olivier were among the thousands of celebrities who obliged, he was turned down by Winston Churchill, George V and, in 1934, Adolf Hitler.

Hitler’s refusal to add to Bray’s collection was politely worded and his office perhaps thought that would be the end of it, but they had reckoned without Bray’s persistence.

He sent another four requests. The more Hitler refused, the more determined Bray became until finally an exasperated letter told him ‘our leader’ was overworked and demanded he refrain from sending any further requests.

At this point Bray gave up, but only because he felt the price of postage to Germany outweighed any more fun to be had from irritating Hitler.

Davis Leafe

W Reginald Bray, the autograph king

W Reginald Bray

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